Assessing Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Indonesia and Southeast Asia


Illustration from FCPI UI


On the morning of March 28th, 2021, a Cathedral in Makassar was attacked by two suicide bombers who detonated explosives just outside the building. It was an act of inhumane terrorism committed by radical individuals from the extremist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), reportedly aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the same group that took responsibility for the 2018 Surabaya and 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings. These acts have one thing in common; an attack disguised as a religious struggle against the “undesirables” of a religion, an act of untoward and unjustifiable violence that inflicted unnecessary damage, losses, and grief to its victims and threatens the integrity of the Indonesian nation.

This has been a persisting issue in Indonesia’s security and defence policy from one administration to the next. Through state institutions, such as the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) and the National Police (Polri), as well as comprehensive bilateral and multilateral security and counter-terrorism agreements with neighbouring regional nations and other international actors, efforts in combating radicalism and extremism have never been more important in this globalized and interconnected world. But what makes this even much more important for Indonesia is the state of pluralism that exists within its borders that ranges from customs, cultures, religions and beliefs, and language. Any form of intolerance could disrupt the arguably strained peace and stability between the communities in Indonesia’s multicultural society.

While acts of terrorism may come from any origin with the right amount of radical and extreme ideas, willing participants or belligerents, and resources to support its efforts, the most serious and concerning form of terrorism has come from those that fall under the banner of radical Islamist groups. This is not something novel to Indonesia’s brand of politics and it has seen activity in the form of separatist movements such as the Darul Islamiyah (DI) that originated in East Java and branched out towards several other regions on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan during the 1950s. The recent prominence of ISIS and the wave of radicalization among Indonesian youth have brought back the issue of radical Islamism back to the drawing board for policy makers and government officials as part of their main priority.

This particular issue is also shared by neighbouring nations in Southeast Asia, particularly ones with significant Muslim populations such as Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Hence, interregional cooperation is necessary to combat the spread of radicalism more thoroughly and prevent extremism from evolving into acts of terrorism in the region. In this article, the writer will explain the phenomenon of radical Islamism and terrorism in Indonesia. The writer will first describe the difference between the concept of radicalism, extremism, and terrorism, extremist behavior in Southeast Asia, strategy to prevent terrorism, and global efforts to counter terrorism.


Before we delve any deeper, we must first determine the differences in these three terms (radicalism, extremism, and terrorism) that are used interchangeably by the general populace. They turn out to have their own set of definitions and meaning as well as their proper usage in certain contexts and situations. Many experts have provided multiple interpretations as to what the meaning of each term are, ranging from a very general explanation to a very specific and categorized approach in their thesis to keep the definitions of each term relevant with the developments of society and to remove the vagueness that clouds the use of each term. So, what are the differences between each one of them and how do experts define radicalism, extremism, and terrorism individually?

Radicalism comes from the word radical, which may be interpreted as representing an extreme or progressive set of ideas, actions, and or beliefs characterized by independence from tradition or status quo. Radicalism tries to provide opposition towards accepted status quos and customs that have stayed for far too long and bring the people more power and legitimacy in their actions and participation within a government or a political system. Mark Sedgwick (2010) proposed that to define what is considered radical, we must be able to define what is considered as moderate within a line of organized opinions. The ability to distinguish the limit of what is considered moderate within a specific context is necessary to start defining what is radical in the same line of thought, however this is a hurdle as it implies that what is moderate is self-evident from the beginning. What he also pointed out in his paper was that radicalism has a stark difference to what is considered extremism and terrorism in the use of violence to achieve their goals.

Bötticher (2017) has laid out several key differences between radicalism and extremism. Whilst radicalism tries to introduce something new against an established system through social and political institutions through what they consider rational means, extremism aims to do the same with a much more extreme extent on the means that they use to realize it. Radicals, according to Bötticher, will remain within certain boundaries in their pursuit of social and political change and will remain as pragmatic as possible during their actions. Extremists, on the other hand, are more willing to justify the means that they use, often including the use of violence, as a legitimate action to push change within society’s institutions.

What differs the radicals from the extremists is also how they respond towards a disadvantageous situation; radicals will often choose to coexist with the rest of the mainstream society and not seek or engage in further confrontations, whilst extremists will proactively find and engage in confrontation opportunities regardless of their disadvantageous conditions. Radicals never wish to subjugate the public towards its ideas and changes in an absolute manner and are able to accept coexistence with plural aspects of the society they live in; extremists, meanwhile, will go through lengths to ensure that a total acceptance and internalization of their values are achieved, even as far as disregarding personal freedom and libertarian values.

Radicalism and extremism have always been interchangeably used by the public and linked with terrorism to a very high degree. However, academics argued terrorism is more closely connected to extremism than it is to radicalism. Putting a definite meaning to terrorism is as problematic as the two previous -isms, proven by the ongoing debates between professionals and scholars that have put their collective efforts to try to reach a consensus on the definition of terrorism. Schmid (2012) have compiled several key points on the definition of terrorism; terrorism is defined as a doctrine of effective fear-generating and coercive political violence with no legal or moral restraint to further an agenda in society. The ultimate target of terrorism is, therefore, the public in general through strategic message deliveries that uses its victims as the vessels. Provoking fear and terror in society destabilizes its own foundations and allows terrorists to move forward with their agenda and instills further fear to those who oppose them.


Being a Muslim-majority nation, political Islam has always been a strong force on the Indonesian political stage for many decades. Not only was Islam an established religion and “way of life”, but it was also becoming a coherent political ideology, known as Islamism. This term should not be confused with Islam (the religion) itself or Muslim (adherents of Islam). The definitions of Islamism vary from one academic to the next, but in general, Islamism could be understood as the belief that Islam should guide socio-political as well as personal life of citizens, oftentimes through the establishment of a state-based upon the Islamic sharia law. The demographics of Indonesia provide an excellent scene for this ideology to flourish.

In the early years of post-independence Indonesia, two out of four major political parties were driven by political Islam: the modernist Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations (Majelis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia, Masyumi) and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Both parties successfully secured a significant number of seats in the parliament during the 1955 General Election, with Masyumi winning 20,9% and NU winning 18,4% of the total votes. Combined, they would have gotten 39,3% of votes, way ahead of the National Party (PNI) and the Communist Party (PKI). This result showed how much of the Indonesian public placed their trust and preference in political Islam as an ideology, Islamist political parties, and Islamist politicians over their nationalist or communist counterparts.

Islamism in Indonesia did unfortunately evolve into radicalism beginning in the 1950s, exemplified when the Islamic State of Indonesia (Darul Islam, DI) was declared and rebelled against the central government to establish a Muslim state based upon Islamic sharia law. The rebellion was quickly suppressed through military force, but not before they launched a failed attempt to assassinate President Soekarno in 1957. After DI was dissolved, its members broke up into radical splinter cells that would later develop into extremist organizations in the 1960s to 70s. Among these are the so-called Jihad Command (Komando Jihad), an official offshoot of DI, and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a transnational terrorist group operating with active cells in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Perhaps the most notable example of how these groups have threatened the human security of innocent civilians was the hijacking of Garuda Indonesia flight 206 on March 28, 1981, the first-ever jihad-motivated terrorist act in Indonesian history. The airliner was scheduled to fly a domestic route from Jakarta to Medan when five armed men took control of the plane after it took off. The hijackers initially wanted the pilots to fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka, but because of fuel limitations, the plane landed in Bangkok, Thailand. They demanded the release of 80 people consisting of their recently detained allies and a sum of US$ 1,5 million, threatening to blow up the plane with explosives if those demands weren’t met. Fortunately, a counter-terrorist operation conducted by Indonesian and Thai security forces was able to neutralize the hijackers and free the passengers. However, it was not without a hitch; two civilians were wounded in the crossfire and later died, and this tragedy showed how ineffective counter-extremist efforts were at the time.

Another tragedy that exemplifies how extremism can cause massive destruction and loss of human lives is the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia on October 12, 2002. Dubbed the “Bali Bombing”, it was conducted by members of JI by detonating explosives just before midnight which killed 202 people, most of them being foreign tourists. This event has been considered the single most devastating act of terrorism in Indonesian history and drove Indonesian law enforcement to harshly crack down on the organization, arresting hundreds of its members and sentencing three of them, the perpetrators directly involved in the Bali Bombing, to death.

Indonesians were not the only ones caught in the fight against extremism, however, as the nations of Southeast Asia often found themselves in the same boat as well.


Similar to Indonesia, several neighbouring nations also share similar societal characteristics that paved the way for the development of radical Islamism, such as significant amount of Muslim population, lack of government oversight on religious teachings, and economic disparities, pushing some people to seek for salvation through the struggle for a cause mandated by the teachings that they have internalized. Thus, acts of terrorism in the name of religious extremism are unfortunately not uncommon in Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, many extremist groups in the region pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph” and leader of the Islamic State (ISIS). Their decision seems to have been driven by similar ideological leanings and ultimate goal of establishing a worldwide Islamic nation-state under the leadership of a caliphate. A significant number of Southeast Asian nationals have been found to have directly participated in ISIS operations in the Middle East. When the terrorist group was at its territorial peak in 2015, more than 1.000 of its affiliates were from Southeast Asia, of which 800 were from Indonesia, 95 from Malaysia, 100 from the Philippines, and 8 from Singapore.

In the 1990s to the early 2000s, the Abu Sayyaf group actively conducted terror attacks from their main base of operations in the southwestern Philippines, mostly in the Sulu Sea region. However, its members were not limited to Filipinos; several Malaysians and Indonesians were caught to have joined Abu Sayyaf as well. The group has conducted numerous kidnappings of journalists, both Filipino and foreign, and held them for ransom. If their demands were not met, Abu Sayyaf terrorists would resort to beheading their captives, especially those found to be non-Muslim, whom they consider being infidels. Their most notable act was the bombing of a passenger ferry in 2004, which killed 116 people and was named the deadliest terrorist attack in Philippine history. Beginning in 2014, the group was affiliated with ISIS after its leader swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and was considered the Islamic State’s “East Asia province”, similar to how the Boko Haram group in Nigeria was its “West Africa province”. Funding received from ISIS enabled this group to wreak havoc all across Southeast Asia.

Just across the Strait of Malacca in neighbouring Malaysia, an armed group called “Katibah Nusantara” was established in 2014 as the Malay-based branch of ISIS. Unlike Abu Sayyaf, this group was not intended to wage jihad in its home region, but to recruit Malaysians and Indonesians as ISIS fighters to later be deployed in the frontlines in Iraq and Syria. It operates like a proper military unit, divided into departments that each handle specific aspects, from combat fighters, snipers, heavy weaponry to tactics and strategy. In a sense, Katibah Nusantara prepares Malaysian and Indonesian recruits for combat in a foreign environment by facilitating communication, directing their combat tasks, and providing moral support to their families. The group was notorious for its responsibility in the 2016 Jakarta attacks, in which suicide bombs were exploded near a busy intersection in Central Jakarta and gunfire was exchanged between the terrorists and security forces. The tragedy killed two people and injured more than twenty.

Therefore, judging from the destructive nature and concerning capabilities possessed by these extremist organizations, it is safe to conclude that stronger measures must be taken to keep them at bay.


The effort to counter the spread of extremism will not be enough to stop it in its tracks completely; there needs to be an active effort to prevent it by relevant actors. Failure to effectively do so would result in letting millions of people live in constant fear of their own security, which would let the perpetrators accomplish their wicked agenda: striking terror in the hearts and minds of the people to further their own cause. To this end, the Indonesian government has implemented several policies and taken measures together with relevant national agencies such as the police, armed forces, National Resilience Agency (Lembaga Ketahanan Nasional, Lemhannas), and the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme, BNPT).

One of the most recent policies that have been enacted by the government is the ratification of the 7th Presidential Decree of 2021 on the 2020-2024 National Action Plan (NAP) on the Prevention and Countermeasures against Violence-based Extremism that Leads to Terrorism. The NAP has laid out a very detailed strategy on combating possible scenarios based on research and historical data collected by the government and expert staff. The decree aims to emphasize the government’s efforts to significantly reduce the threat of terrorism by minimizing extremism forms that may lead to terrorism in the first place. By adopting an approach against extremism in a more general sense, instead of relying on terrorism-specific activities, the government must be able to act in a rational manner to ensure that extremism is mitigated, and no unnecessary harm or loss is inflicted.

Furthermore, the government has redoubled its efforts on combating extremism through information and communication technologies by implementing a policy to proactively monitor suspicious online chatrooms and social media groups that are suspected to contain, spread, and actively promoting extremist content and or ideals. The government is able to do this through clandestine operations where its members infiltrate a chat room or disguise as one of its members and start building up a profile of potential targets and to verify whether a specific online chat room is utilized for suspicious activities or not. However, this form of crackdown through supposedly private groups of people has come under scrutiny more often than not and the source of information for the authorities has been in question for some time. Despite concerns over privacy issues, this method has relatively remained under control and within moderate boundaries to not cause panic within the rest of the population.

As a key element of national development and growth and the nation’s future, the youth has received substantial focus from the government regarding character building and values internalization to prevent any form of extremism to grow in the hearts and minds of the younger generation. Citizenship education and a proactive measure of integrating the national ideology and moderacy into the national education institution aims to solidify the efforts of minimizing such forms unwanted influence realizing within the youth of Indonesia. Several socialization campaigns on terrorism and the dangers of extremism are also part of the government’s commitment to combat any chance of a rising wave of youth-focused extremist organizations in the country and the general spread of extremism in Indonesia. 


Regional collaboration would also be a necessity to combat extremism and terrorism effectively. The nations of Southeast Asia are united under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the primary organization to further regional cooperation between them. While it was originally intended to improve collaboration in economic, social, and cultural fields, it has recently expanded its scope to include political and security cooperation under the ASEAN Political-Security Community framework. Through the annual ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), member states meet to foster understanding and improve capability and readiness in addressing maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and most importantly, counter-terrorism efforts.

The ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism (2001) signified the initial commitment of member states to combat terrorism jointly, and the further ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism (2007) serves as the basis of regional cooperative efforts in countering terrorism by providing for the prevention of its financing, prevention of terrorist movement through border control, promotion of capacity-building, and public awareness, among other clauses.

Member states responded to the recent increase in terrorist acts by signing the Manila Declaration (2017), which emphasizes deradicalization in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, developing community-based approaches, and utilization of information and communication technologies to prevent the widespread promotion of extremism. That same year, the Declaration on Culture of Prevention (2017) was signed in an effort to further preventive counter-terrorism efforts by promoting peace and intercultural understanding, respect for all, and support for the values of moderation.

Besides regional agreements, ASEAN members have also cooperated directly in the field by conducting joint military operations. One notable example was the formation of tripartite cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in 2016 as a response to the aforementioned activity of Abu Sayyaf. The three states will conduct exercises and patrol operations directed against the group and other similar groups active in the region to ensure maritime security in the Sulu Sea. However, such cooperation has so far been limited to few member states.

On the flip side, even though ASEAN holds great potential, its current efforts on counter-terrorism have been plagued with insufficiencies due to structural limitations and lack of preventative measures. From a structural point of view, ASEAN’s decision-making process is slow because of its basis on consensus. The laws that ASEAN produces have weak impact, and domestic issues tend to take precedence over regional ones. Furthermore, the lack of prevention could be seen from failure to contain extremist propaganda on the internet and the absence of a strong critical infrastructure protection framework. It would require major changes by all of ASEAN’s member states to alleviate these obstacles and improve the effectiveness of Southeast Asia’s response to extremism and terrorism.


Radicalism, to a degree, might provide a solid foundation for needed social change within a society. It has tried time and time again to distance itself from its more dangerous counterparts (extremism and terrorism), but the generalization of the three –isms have vagued the true meaning of each term and made differentiating one from another a difficult challenge. Whilst radicals can still accept coexistence with mainstream society and acknowledge the pluralistic nature of the society that they’re a part of, extremism tends to force their agenda regardless of the situation or condition they are in. Their justification on the use of force as a legitimate means to achieve their goals makes them a danger towards society itself and does not introduce any confidence towards peaceful coexistence unless their demands are met.

Historically, Islam has been a strong force in Indonesia and Southeast Asia due to their demographics. It has evolved from merely a major religion to become a way of life and political ideology. Unsurprisingly, some segments of society took Islamism a bit further by incorporating radical—and later extremist—thought into their movements. Extremist organizations appeared to voice their aspirations, with most of them using lethal force to do so. The international presence of ISIS amplified their impact, and now drastic measures need to be taken in response.

Several waves of rising extremism and terrorism have made policy-makers to rethink their approach in combatting such threats towards the people of their nations. Indonesia has continuously renewed their national efforts through comprehensive action plans and integration of moderate and tolerance values on all levels of society. Southeast Asian states through the framework of ASEAN has enacted numerous cooperation in collective agreements to combat extremism and terrorism on a regional level. Common values to pursue perpetual peace and to realize a safe regional society act as two supporting factors in these efforts. However, Indonesia and ASEAN still has plenty of homework regarding necessary updates for counter-terrorism measures to increase its efficiency and effectiveness.

References can be accessed through

Tentang Penulis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *